Change and the inevitability of pain

Posted by royhendo on May 18, 2012, 06:48:10 PM

Something changed at Liverpool Football Club in recent days, beyond the obvious impact on personnel. Something fundamental. Depending on your context, change can be seen as positive or negative. It's inevitable. Some will experience pain. Some will experience excitement.

We all love the club. And when we love something, and it changes, the pain or excitement we experience is that little bit more intense.

If we see the change as positive, we're naturally excited, and we want others to understand the reasons for our excitement.

If we see the change as negative, we naturally experience pain, and if the despair isn't too overwhelming, we baulk at notions that there's any reason to be excited.

Both responses are natural. We fall back on our faith in times of trouble, after all. Faith in commitment to the club's traditional values, or the other, more recent contender - faith in the existence of a rational 'plan'.

If your support for the club was founded on faith in its traditional values, you're probably deeply unsettled at the moment. On the other hand, if your support is founded on faith in the existence of a rational plan, you're probably quietly elated. If you're unsettled, you're probably incredulous at those expressing their elation. If you're elated, you're probably wishing the sceptics would be quiet.

Each group holds out their version of faith as the truth - that's how faith works. We argue, we debate, we hold up our beliefs as expressions of 'The Liverpool Way'. My way - our way - is right. Yours is wrong. Or, if it suits in rebuttal, "There's no such thing as a Liverpool Way."

It doesn't really matter what label you apply - each core belief is really a form of existential crutch, and there's no real certainty that it's right or wrong - certainly not at this stage. A few exist in a place where they can sit comfortably with this fact, and watch the whole thing unfold without judgement, and without that kind of polarised view. They're lucky. It's easier for them. The rest of us are unbalanced without the reassurance of our crutch.

The club, of course, while nominally a Limited Company (or a mind boggling Venn Diagram of Limited Companies), is really a vague hybrid entity - a subtle balancing of 'stakeholders' - players and staff, lenders, partners and sponsors, owners and investors, and last but not least, supporters. Call it a 'Holy Trinity', or a 'square with four equally important sides', the labels are irrelevant really - what manifests itself as the 'club' is really a complex and subtle product of the way these things interact. The whole thing yaws, pitches and rolls from season to season and decade to decade of course. Old players retire, new players come in. Managers are mutually consented. Legendary fans pass away, with young bucks taking their seats, and somehow, gradually, the club evolves. But tinker with that balance too much - give any of the elements too much of a jolt - and you run the risk of cracking the foundations of the whole thing. You could end up with a whole different club - a whole different balance in the relationship between the various groups.

The first really big 'tweak' in recent years came in 2007, when David Moores decided to sell the club to Tom Hicks and George Gillett. It took a while for everyone to realise the significance of what had happened, mind, but something truly seizmic had taken place, and it ultimately resulted in two of the key groups in the whole balancing act - the lenders and the supporters - intervening to jolt things again - arguably to jolt the whole thing back from the brink - back to life.

But again, that subtly changed the balance of things, to the extent that fans experienced a greater sense of entitlement, and belief in their own empowerment to influence things. The reality, however, is now beginning to dawn on a few people. We believe we have empowerment and influence, but the cold hard irony is that we've been emasculated. We have the illusion of empowerment and enfranchisement. We are no longer acknowledged as needed for our spiritual sustenance - we exist to be cheerleaders, and consumers, and contributors to 'fun' online polls. We exist to be herded from website to website, and TV channel to TV channel, with our collective numbers helping determine just how much revenue the Limited Companies can extract from sponsors. Sponsors who, of course, have now assumed the enfranchisement the fans may have formerly enjoyed.

Those committed to the traditional notion of faith in this context would argue the following: that the club has dispensed with the idea it exists to win trophies, and to nurture its roots in its community, in favour of revenue growth, brand management and meaningless European also-ran status.

Those committed to the rational notion of faith, on the other hand, maintain that the pursuit of these new objectives are the sine qua non of elite competition in modern day football, and that change must happen, or the club will wither and ultimately become meaningless.

Nobody really knows who's right. But whatever happens, what's inevitable is that pain will result, and that the club will be fundamentally different when we emerge from this process of change.

It's arguably illustrative that the first appointment we're expecting to see following our 'night of the long knives' is the role of chief 'herder' - the Director of Communications. That's no disrespect to whoever takes on the role, of course. That it's needed is brutally obvious, particularly to the traditionalists among us.

The club sacks maybe the second most important figure in its history, only for its staff, but two days later, to send out messages on twitter asking followers who they want to see replace him. They then go on to claim that those who objected had misunderstood the context of their messages - that 'they were simply looking for fan views to include on a fun online feature'. All at a time when many fans are desparate for reassurance that they, and their support are being taken seriously. That they're not being taken for granted. It's not that hard to figure out where the club's priorities lie.

For the traditionalists, sporting success is now seen as being a secondary concern for Fenway Sports Group. For the rationalists, that fact is seen as a necessary shift in focus, and that any success we might enjoy in future must be the by-product of commercial returns. That there's no room for sentimentalism or misguided tradition for its own sake.

So either we'll take it on the chin and tacitly consent to the herding, or we'll jack it all in and change the way we relate to the club. Either way, things will be different. The whole thing will become that little bit more plastic. And we'll sing about history and the shortcomings of other fans, but in reality we'll find ourselves becoming more and more like them.

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